Perceptual breakdown during a global pandemic: introducing phenomenological insights for digital mental health purposes

Janna van Grunsven*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
15 Downloads (Pure)


Online therapy sessions and other forms of digital mental health services (DMH) have seen a sharp spike in new users since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having little access to their social networks and support systems, people have had to turn to digital tools and spaces to cope with their experiences of anxiety and loss. With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, many of us are likely to remain reliant upon DMH for the foreseeable future. As such, it is important to articulate some of the specific ways in which the pandemic is affecting our self and world-relation, such that we can identify how DMH services are best able to accommodate some of the newly emerging needs of their users. In this paper I will identify a specific type of loss brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and present it as an important concept for DMH. I refer to this loss as loss of perceptual world-familiarity. Loss of perceptual world-familiarity entails a breakdown in the ongoing effortless responsiveness to our perceptual environment that characterizes much of our everyday lives. To cash this out I will turn to insights from the phenomenological tradition. Initially, my project is descriptive. I aim to bring out how loss of perceptual world-familiarity is a distinctive form of loss that is deeply pervasive yet easily overlooked—hence the relevance of explicating it for DMH purposes. But I will also venture into the space of the normative, offering some reasons for seeing perceptual world-familiarity as a component of well-being. I conclude the paper with a discussion of how loss of perceptual world-familiarity affects the therapeutic setting now that most if not all therapeutic interactions have transitioned to online spaces and I explore the potential to augment these spaces with social interaction technologies. Throughout, my discussion aims to do justice to the reality that perceptual world-familiarity is not an evenly distributed phenomenon, that factors like disability, gender and race affect its robustness, and that this ought to be reckoned with when seeking to incorporate the phenomenon into or mitigate it through DMH services.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)91-98
Number of pages8
JournalEthics and Information Technology
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • Affordances
  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Digital mental health
  • Ego-depletion
  • Loss of perceptual world-familiarity
  • Online therapy
  • Phenomenology
  • Social interaction technologies
  • Well-being

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